Legendary Oncologist Emil J. Freireich, MD, Dies at 93 | Nutrition Fit

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Dr Emil J. Freireich

Emil J. Freireich, MD, widely recognized as a founding father of modern leukemia therapy and clinical cancer research, died on February 1 at the age of 93 years.

He had been a member of the faculty of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, for 50 years. Even after retiring in 2015, Freireich made regular visits to the MD Anderson campus in Houston to teach and consult.

“Dr Freireich was a giant of modern medicine whose impact on the field of cancer is beyond compare,” Peter W. T. Pisters, MD, president of MD Anderson, said in a statement. “His passing will be felt around the world.”

Among his many achievements, Freireich determined that leukemia patients frequently bled to death because of insufficient platelets, a finding that led to the development of the first continuous-flow blood cell separator, for which he held the patent. In the late 1950s, he pioneered combination chemotherapy for childhood leukemia. At that time, the disease was frequently terminal.

“He truly is the father of modern leukemia therapy, being the first to test leukemia drugs and to drive innovation in a disease that no one else had the courage to confront with his force,” Hagop Kantarjian, MD, chair of the Department of Leukemia at MD Anderson, said in the statement.

Kantarjian met Freireich in 1978 as a fourth-year medical student and eventually joined him on staff.

“He encouraged us to dare and challenge existing dogmas in cancer research. He inspired my passion to work toward cures for patients and to change the face of this disease,” Kantarjian said.

Crazy Ideas, Big Payoffs

The son of Hungarian immigrants, Freireich was born in 1927 and grew up poor in inner-city Chicago during the Great Depression. He received his medical degree in 1949 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine. He was just 22.

After an internship and residency in internal medicine in Chicago, Freireich accepted a fellowship in hematology at Massachusetts Memorial Hospital in Boston, where met his future wife, Haroldine Cunningham, a nurse. She started to call him “Jay,” after his middle initial, and friends and colleagues followed suit.

In 1955, Freireich went to work at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was assigned to care for children in the leukemia ward. At the time, leukemia was a virtual death sentence; most children lived only 8 weeks after being diagnosed.

In the late 1950s, Freireich and three colleagues ― Emil “Tom” Frei III, MD, James F. Holland, MD, and Charles Gordon Zubrod, MD ― began investigating combination drug therapy for childhood leukemia. Their work was based on success in treating tuberculosis this way.

The trio started administering highly toxic drugs to young leukemia patients, at first two drugs, then three, and then four. At this point, the medical establishment spoke out, fearing the children would die.

Instead, for the vast majority of patients, disease went into remission. Today, the 5-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common childhood leukemia, is around 90% overall, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Dr Freireich’s creative passion and fierce determination to break medical barriers led to lifesaving treatments for his young leukemia patients,” Jordan Gutterman, MD, from the Department of Leukemia at MD Anderson, said in the statement.

“Most breakthrough ideas are considered crazy when initially presented to the scientific community. These ‘crazy’ ideas are the ones that often evolve into revolutionary medical and scientific advances,” Gutterman said.

MD Anderson oncologist Zeev Estrov, MD, said Freireich had a “major influence” on him personally and professionally.

“I frequently approached him to hear his opinion, which he delivered with scalpel-sharp logic and high intellect. No gloves. No sugar coating. The naked truth ― Freireich’s way. I appreciated him for that,” Estrov said.

Freireich also helped pioneer the application of cytogenetics and molecular genetics in patient care and in the evaluation of the effects of therapy, including detection of minimal residual disease. Late in his career, he helped create and served as president of the Association for Patient-Oriented Research.

To honor Freireich’s commitment to education, MD Anderson created the Emil J. Freireich Award for Excellence in Education.

Numerous Awards

Freireich contributed to more than 600 scientific articles and more than 100 books. He received numerous honors, including the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, the Charles F. Kettering Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the first National Institutes of Health Distinguished Alumnus Award, the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and the Robert Roesler de Villiers Award from the Leukemia Society of America.

In 2019, Freireich received presidential recognition during a Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall in Washington, DC. That same year, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) honored him with the AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research during its annual meeting.

Freireich is survived by his wife, Haroldine, and his four children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

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